Section 1: Does Zen have a history?


Traditionally, the Zen sect claims to have been transmitted from mind to mind beginning with special teachings of Buddha in India. The legend goes that Zen was brought to China in 320 by Bodhidharma, the 28th patriarch of India who became the first Chinese patriarch of this sect. The "real Bodhidharma" may actually have lived in China in the first decade of the fifth century, but it is questionable if he founded the Zen sect. He is supposed to have insisted that Buddhism consists only in looking into one's own nature:

"A special transmission outside the scriptures. No dependence on words or letters. Pointing directly to the heart (intuitive mind) of man. Seeing into one's own nature and attainment of Buddhahood." {Siren: The Chinese on the Art of Painting, p. 93}

"'Those who seek Buddha do not find him. One thing avails - to discover the unreality of the world by contemplating the absolute, which is at the root of one's own nature.'" {Waley: Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art, pp. 9-10}

His words do not contradict Zen belief, but they do not describe it positively. He is famous for having meditated for nine years with his face to the wall of a cave. They say he lived to be 150 years old.

However, recent writers stress that the origin of Zen as a sect is obscure but that it is Chinese, not Indian. Suzuki considers that only the "eminently practical" mind of the Chinese could have developed the Zen way. Before its flowering, the theory of instantaneous enlightenment was held by Tao-sheng (ca. 360-434), many sects of Buddhism had been imported from India, and there was a tradition among the upper classes of retreating from cities and worldly affairs to "set one's mind in order" and to find fulfillment in nature. Clearly, early Zen blossomed in monasteries established in the mountains in the 5th or 6th century.

The word Zen is a literal misnomer for "its way". It is the Japanese reading of a character which in Mandarin is read Chan (or Ch'an) but which anciently was pronounced something like dyan, and is simply a transcription of the first syllable of the Sanskrit word "dhyana". In Buddhist terminology, dyana meant a kind of yoga or sitting in trance. However, in China, the religious sect of Zen is called Ch'an, and in Japan, Zen. In this paper, "Zen" is used consistently.

Hui-neng, who is called the sixth Zen patriarch in China, was the first to formulate clearly Zen's position. He said dhyana, meditation, is nothing but part of the instantaneous process of insight or intuition, called prajna. This meant insight may be obtained in the ordinary course of living. Previously, these two were believed to be discrete. In Buddhism, one must stop his ordinary activities and meditate to achieve enlightenment. Hui-neng changed the static and passive Buddha image into that of an active man.

This attitude was imminent in Bodhidharma's words, "Those who seek Buddha do not find him." But no one before Hui-neng seems to have made a move to substitute a "way" for the seeking by meditation.

Hui-neng came form the lower classes in Southern China to study with the fifth patriarch, Hung-jen. The story is that he held the lowest job in the monastery, a bread-pounder who could not read or write. {Suzuki: Zen Buddhism, p. 73, ff.} When the time came to choose a new patriarch, Hung-jen said that anyone who could prove his thorough comprehension of the religion would be his successor. Shen-hsiu was the most learned of all the disciples and expected by many to succeed. But supposedly there was a posting of poems which proved Hui-neng's direct grasp of the truth compared with Shen-hsiu's materialistic conceptions and positive proofs.

Hui-neng was favored by Hung-jen and became the legitimate sixth patriarch. But Shen-hsiu claimed the title too. At the request of the Empress Wu-hou, he moved to the capital and became the spiritual leader of the fashionable Zen of the North, with its assurance of gradual or partial insight. Hui-neng gained thousands of disciples in the Southern provinces. When Shen-hsiu invited him to the Northern capital, ca. 684, Hui-neng refused, saying, "I am a man of low stature and humble appearance. I fear that the men of the North would despise me and my doctrines." {Waley: An Introduction to the Study of Chinese Painting, p. 9}

Hui-neng was quite lucid about his point of view. He said:

"It is a mistake to think that sitting quietly in contemplation is essential to deliverance. The truth of Zen opens by itself from within and it has nothing to do with the practice of dhyana. Everything is a manifestation of the Buddha nature, which is not defiled in passions nor purified in enlightenment." "Free your mind from thought of relativity and you will see by yourself how serene it is and yet how full of life it is." {Suzuki: Studies in Zen p. 134}

His aim was not to stop the mind but to see into the dynamics of its workings. After him, if a Zen monk sat, doing nothing, he was resting, doing just that, nothing. The difficulty in characterizing Zen is its truth claim. There is no way but its way and its way is to prod the individual into finding his own way. The absolute lies within the nature of any individual thing. Zen has an absolute but it is unnameable. There is no God word. Since the only authority is individual experience, Zen is called mystical, but it is never other than a human experience. The experience is of non-being, of the infinite, of the first principle. Experience of the absolute leads to insight. But the aim is ordinary-mindedness or sufficient insight to get though the day's work without anxiety.

There is no correct verbal understanding of Zen. Step on it in one place, it pops up in another. Calling Shen-hsiu's proof "material" is meaningless. This is because if someone asks a Zen master where the Buddha is, the master can say anything. He may say "The hedge," or he may point, he may hit the asker, he may shout, he may say, "You are the Buddha." Whatever he does is "material".

Furthermore, there is no certainty what the painters are considering, who believed and lived as monks, are supposed to have done. I have found no specific record from the Zen temples around Hang-chow in the Sun Dynasty of the monks' way of life or of their spiritual life.

Generally, Zen monks esteemed neatness so much that "neat as a Zen temple" became a motto. Everyone worked hard with simple methods in the self-sufficient living units. They also might practice an art. There was a rather rigid discipline: "No work, no food" the monks were told. {Siren: The Chinese on the Art of Painting, p. 105}

Aside from their duties the only thing to keep their minds from wandering was the master. This figure is very important. He simply is revered as being right about everything. But the master's whole purpose is to keep the disciple from believing anything outside of his own experience, so in a way, the master is right about nothing. There must have been a great deal of social intercourse and insistence on immediate response to each other's state of mind.

Zen takes no stand on morals or politics, except indirectly, by trying to sharpen men's minds for dealing with their environment. Apparently it was common for men of any occupation to study for a while under a Zen master. Zen has no idols, no hierarchy, no scripture, no refuge. Thus there is no truth but that which is sufficient in dealing with things as they are at the moment. Everything is in flux, every manifestation is being and changing; so does the truth. If a Zen monk makes a mistake or has trouble, he cannot blame fate or luck or God or anyone but himself. For that is the way things are.

It was during the Sung Dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries that Zen most completely permeated Chinese thought, and the greatest number of monasteries existed. Since the 11th century it was the only vital strand of Buddhism. {J. LeRoy Davidson: The Lotus Sutra in Chinese Art, p. 92}

During the succeeding Yuan Dynasty, many of the monks took refuge in Japan where the main development continued.

To any short characterizations of Zen, asking if it "possesses" the truth, the Zen adept will reply, "Yes, yes, of course." That may be true, but it is not the truth. That is why the literature of Zen is a collection of anecdotes and poems that hint at truths. They are useless but wonderful. One such anecdote tells of Tanhsia, who stayed one night at an ordinary Buddhist monastery. As it was cold, he went to the chapel and chopped up a wooden stature of Buddha for firewood, which infuriated the Buddhists. {Waley: Zen Buddhism and Its Relationship to Art, p. 24.} This story is enhanced by knowing many famous masters said things like, "When I am tired, I sleep. When I am hungry, I eat. I know when I am too hot or too cold." The mind is to be one with the body in serving the needs of the person. What Tanhsia needed most was the wood in the Buddha.

Broom said to Buddha,
We saints can never sleep.

Buddha said to broom,
We little folk must sweep;

Old Brocaded Abbot
Smiled as he knelt to broom.

Buddha leaned in cupboard
While Abbot swept the room.

{Langdon Warner: Enduring Art of Japan, p. 103}

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